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The Politics of Gun Control: Christie Aims for the Center

Democrats, gun control advocates criticize Christie’s inaction compared to Obama, Cuomo.

Gov. Chris Christie took a middle road on gun control yesterday that continued his reelection makeover as an apostle of bipartisanship who is “above politics,” as a reasonable alternative to the Republican Right, and as a forceful but compassionate leader willing to take on the powers that be even within his own party.

One day after President Obama called for a national ban on military-style assault weapons that contain magazines with more than 10 rounds of ammunition and universal background checks for gun purchasers, Christie unveiled what he calls his antiviolence strategy.

Noting that New Jersey’s gun laws are the second most restrictive in the nation, after California, Christie said he is creating a bipartisan task force to study the broader issue of violence. Christie asked the commission to come back with recommendations not just on gun control, but on a broader “antiviolence” agenda that includes how to promote school safety, limit violent video games, and address the substance abuse and mental health problems that can lead to mass killings like the Sandy Hill Elementary School shootings in Connecticut.

Christie, who has future national ambitions as well as a gubernatorial reelection campaign this year, has seen his poll numbers soar both locally and across the country since he embraced the Obama administration and chastised Republican House leaders over their actions after Hurricane Sandy. He continued in that vein Wednesday by leveling a sharp-tongued attack on the National Rifle Association for its “reprehensible” ad suggesting that Obama could afford to oppose armed guards in schools because his children have armed Secret Service protection.

Former Democratic Gov. James J. Florio said Christie’s middle-of-the-road agenda is shaped by the awareness that public sentiment in New Jersey is even more strongly in favor of gun control today than it was when Florio championed his groundbreaking assault weapons ban in 1990. In fact, a Fairleigh Dickinson University Poll found that more than three-quarters of New Jersey's registered voters favor greater restrictions on both high-powered guns and high-capacity ammunition clips.

Florio, who received the “Profiles in Courage Award” from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government for his efforts on gun control, noted that it took a coalition of religious leaders, the healthcare community, police and educators – and a flood of calls from moderate Republican women -- to convince a Legislature with veto-proof two-thirds Republican majorities not to strike down the assault weapons ban in 1992.

In deference to the Second Amendment conservatives who make up a sizable bloc of the Republican electorate, Christie refused to comment on Obama’s gun proposals -- even though, as a former U.S. Attorney, he is on record favoring continuation of New Jersey’s 22-year-old assault weapons ban. He said he would await recommendations from his New Jersey SAFE task force headed by two former state attorney-generals -- one Democrat and one Republican -- before devising new policies for New Jersey.

Do the Right Thing

“There are no predetermined outcomes. They will come to me with the best ideas they can find,” said Christie, who promised that he would “try and figure out what the right thing to do is.”

“I’m not worried about anybody on any side of this argument. I’m not worried about the NRA. I’m not worried about the Brady Campaign against gun violence. Or Gabrielle Gifford's. Or any of the other people who are very vulnerable on all sides of this issue.”

Christie’s approach to the gun-control issue infuriated Democratic legislative leaders and gun-control advocates, who regarded the 60-day study commission as an excuse for Christie to put off taking potentially unpopular positions on what has been a major hot-button issue since the governor was an unknown Morris County freeholder more than two decades ago.

“Leaders lead,” asserted Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex), who has been emphasizing gun-control issues in her campaign for the Democratic nomination to run against Christie in November.

“We do not need more talk. We need action,” agreed Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver. Democrats in the state Legislature have already introduced a number of bills to tighten New Jersey’s gun laws. “The Assembly will soon be advancing a wide-ranging and responsible package touching upon gun and ammunition safety, mental health care, school security, gun trafficking and other concerns.”

Florio said it was possible that the task force could come up with a serious package of proposals. He praised the selection of former Attorneys General John Degnan and Peter Verniero to head Christie’s task force, and said he would be watching to see if the governor took their recommendations seriously.

“The NRA counts on the public becoming disengaged and uninformed while they try to run out the clock” after a tragedy like the Sandy Hill Elementary School massacre, said Florio.

“Governor Christie really hasn’t taken a whole lot of positions on this issue,” Florio said. “For a lot of us concerned about the positions he might take, that’s a very good thing. He hasn’t done anything bad, so that’s good.”

Florio said he was particularly enthusiastic about Obama’s call for universal background checks for all gun purchasers. “Under the current system, a person who gets turned away at the airport because he’s on the terrorist watch list can buy an assault weapon at a gun show,” he said.

In addition to Degnan, the Attorney General under Democratic Gov. Brendan T. Byrne, and Verniero, who served as both Attorney General and Supreme Court associate justice under Republican Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, the New Jersey SAFE Task Force will include Manuel Guantez, chief executive officer for Turning Point in Paterson, a substance-abuse treatment facility; James Romer, director of services at Monmouth Medical Center; Evelyn Sullivan, managing director of the Daytop New Jersey treatment facility in Pittsgrove; and Brian Zychowski, superintendent of the North Brunswick school district.

Continue reading on NJSpotlight.com.

NJ Spotlight is an issue-driven news website that provides critical insight to New Jersey’s communities and businesses. It is non-partisan, independent, policy-centered and community-minded.

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